Walkability and transit accessibility in Massachusetts communities and Senior citizen health outcomes
Topic Description : U.S. Census Bureau projections anticipate a doubling of the over-65 population in the U.S. from 2012 to 2060. During this same time period, the proportion of senior citizens as compared to the entire population will increase from 1 in 7 today to 1 in 5.  This trend will be even more pronounced in Massachusetts, where we will reach the 1 in 5 statistic by 2030.  As planners and policymakers, we should be asking questions such as: is there a relationship between the built environment, particularly transportation infrastructure, and healthy aging for seniors? Can our built environment and social structures/institutions meet the needs of an aging population? If not, which changes should we make?
Theoretically, walkability and access to transit could be associated with positive health outcomes among those seniors who can still walk. Physical activity is commonly accepted as one of the primary building blocks of health, both physical and mental. Furthermore, if a community is walkable, perhaps those seniors whose ability to drive safely is compromised by age-related disease would not drive as much, reducing traffic injuries. Perhaps walkable communities also promote social interaction and reduce feelings of isolation.
Project Ideas and Spatial Questions: For the purposes of this project, I would focus on one of the regions identified in the report. I’m particularly interested in either the Northeast or Southeast region, because there is a lot of variability within each of these regions in terms of density, walkability, health outcomes, and wealth of municipalities. I would produce maps to describe this variation. These maps could be useful in answering questions such as:
Do seniors living in more walkable communities tend to have higher rates of physical activity?
Do communities with higher rates of physical activity tend to have better health outcomes (less diabetes, heart disease, etc.)? Does there seem to be a relationship between physical activity and mental health indicators, such as depression, in these communities? Is there a relationship between transit accessibility and health outcomes? Do crime or socio-economic factors seem to play a role in any of these relationships?
I could also look at different measures walkability. The Healthy Aging Report uses the walk score. Other possible measures include the number of intersections per square mile, mixed-use zoning, residential and employment density, etc. Which overlay of walkability measures is most appropriate for studying seniors, specifically, as opposed to the general population?
Are there any communities or areas of communities where seniors make up a large percentage of the population? How would a density map of seniors compare to a density map of the general population? Another question, which may be beyond the scope of this project: are there particular locations that would be more suitable for building Senior housing? Or for locating Councils on Aging, support services for seniors still living in their homes, walking trails designed with Seniors in mind, and Senior-serving shared/public transit systems?
Additional Literature: The following study addressed my question of whether there is a connection between the built environment and walking behavior in seniors.
Li, Fuzhong, K. John Fisher, Ross C. Brownson, and Mark Bosworth. 2005. Multilevel Modelling of Built Environment Characteristics Related to Neighbourhood Walking Activity in Older Adults . Vol. 59.
This study used addresses of 65 year old+ residents of 56 neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon. Each participant completed a questionnaire on walking behavior and demographic data. The researchers used GIS to measure built environment variables at the neighborhood level (residential density, employment density, number of street intersections, and amount of greenspace.) Researchers also looked at built environment variables at the smaller “resident” scale of within a 0.5 mile walk radius from the participants’ addresses. Neighborhoods with greater household and employment densities, more street intersections, and more green spaces were significantly associated with more walking. Residents who perceived their neighborhood as safe for walking were more likely to walk.
The next study addressed the question of whether there is a connection between the built environment and health outcomes (but for a different population – children)
Oreskovic, Nicolas M., Jonathan P. Winickoff, Karen A. Kuhlthau, Diane Romm, and James M. Perrin. 2009. "Obesity and the Built Environment among Massachusetts Children." Clinical Pediatrics 48 (9): 904-912.
While this study focused on children, the overarching questions and techniques would be similar to myproject. The researchers had addresses and BMIs of Massachusetts children. They used GIS to determine how far children lived from schools, subways, bicycle trails, open space, and fast food restaurants. They also looked at availability of sidewalks and the densities of subway stations and other built environment variables in the childrens’ neighborhoods. The researchers used statistical techniques (t tests and odds ratios) to see if there were statistically significant associations between the built environment variables and BMI. When controlling for sociodemographic factors, the only significant finding was that children living far away from a subway station tended to have higher BMIs.
While both of these studies used GIS in the analysis, they did not include an extensive mapping component for their report. Maps were limited to those showing distribution of study samples. If I go forward with this topic of healthy aging and the built environment, it would be good to try and find some more examples of reports that focus more on spatial depictions of the data rather than simply using spatial data to assist with the main statistical analysis.
Data: Most of the data could come from the same sources used by the Health Aging researchers. If I wanted to look more into walkability and transit, I might use some data from Mass GIS, such as Bicycle Trails, Trains, Zoning, and MassDOT roads.
Topic #2: Regional options for expanding active and public transportation.
Topic Description: I’ve often lamented that New England, outside of Boston and the inner ring suburbs, is far from being walkable/bike-able and accessible by public transit. I am curious to take an inventory of the existing and proposed public and active transport options. I’m particularly interested in abandoned railroads and/or historic streetcar lines, because these corridors may have potential for re-development for public or active transportation, or both. Population density – both in terms of where people live and where people work – also plays a role in determining optimal transit routes. One of the readings for Christine’s Green Urban Design Course, which I took last semester, cited the minimum dwelling units per acre needed to support the different types of public transit. 
Project Ideas and Spatial Questions: I would choose a region with some historic public transit infrastructure, as well as some variability in terms of density. I recently visited southern NH, and was surprised to see some historic railroad beds; this region might be one candidate for the project. Another option would be to focus on the area around the proposed Mass Central Rail Trail. Portions of the Mass Central Rail Trail, including the Norwottuck Trail from Belchertown to Florence, have been built. Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is proposing to develop another portion of the Mass Central, from Belmont to Berlin.
For either region, preliminary spatial questions include: What is the distribution of walkability, public transit access and shared transit access in the region? Where are there “gaps” in service? Where are there opportunities for expansion of either of these services? Which areas/ corridors have sufficient densities of residents and concentrations of jobs to support different “tiers” of public transit? Are there areas where organized systems of carpooling and carsharing might be feasible? What about areas that have sufficient density and public/active transit to institute driving disincentives such as higher payments for parking?
The literature search on topic #2 was much more difficult, probably because my thoughts on this topic are not yet as clearly focused. It also seems that transportation modelling is just really complicated. I found many papers (not included here) that were so technical that I could not understand them with a thorough skim.
Horner, Mark W., and Tony H. Grubesic. "A GIS-based planning approach to locating urban rail terminals." Transportation 28, no. 1 (2001): 55-77
This study used a proposed railroad in Columbus, OH, as a case study. They applied a methodology for figuring out where to locate park and ride facilities. Using census data, the researchers were able to map where the demographic groups more likely to use rail transit were concentrated, and where the “high demand” points would be. They also looked at street network to see which potential stations were accessible by car. They looked at how far these potential park and ride points were from the central business district (where most people would be commuting to) and from “demand points” with high residential densities of potential transit users. They used a mathematical model to quantify the expected demand at each location. My primary “take-home” from this paper is that mapping transportation demand and trying to use this information to determine appropriate locations for transportation infrastructure can get quite technical. For the purpose of this project, I would probably need to find a way to make the topic more manageable and focused.
Conine, Ashley, Wei-Ning Xiang, Jeff Young, and David Whitley. "Planning for Multi-Purpose Greenways in Concord, North Carolina." Landscape and Urban Planning 68, no. 2–3 (5/30, 2004): 271-287.
This study used GIS to propose locations for greenways in Concord, NC. The authors talked to local officials to identify sites (parks, schools, etc.) where there might be more demand for greenway accessibility. They looked at street grids to determine accessibility. They also looked at floodplains, sewer line easements, soil types, and other geographic/spatial data. Each type of area was assigned a “capability score” based on how suitable it would be for a trail. For instance, areas not previously developed would receive higher capability scores, because the point of a greenway is to prevent further development. In another example, some soil types are better than others for greenway development. All of these layers of data – geographic, street grids, demand centers - were overlaid in GIS to determine potential greenway corridors which would maximize environmental protection, accessible recreation, and active transportation. While this paper was much more accessible than the previous paper, it still made me realize that the question of where to locate a greenway is way more complex than I first thought. I definitely would need to further focus my topic in order to make the analysis more manageable. I could see myself doing something more along the scope of what Alex Krogh-Grabbe did for his final GIS project in 2011 – measuring walkability in the Boston area in different ways – through sidewalk coverage, land use mix, intersection density, Walk score, transit access, etc.
Data Ideas: Possible data sources include the Boston MPO, which has traffic counts, transit service by municipality, and a transportation demand model. I could also use several of the Mass GIS layers, include trains, zoning, bicycle trails, etc.
Public Access, Contaminated Sediments, and Water Quality in the Malden River
I’m doing the Malden River field project. We are working on a plan to enhance public access to the Malden River, as well as addressing problems of contaminated sediments and poor water quality. At this point, I feel that the project, and my familiarity with it, is at too early a stage to know how to integrate GIS. And I am probably more interested in the two topics I’ve outline already. But perhaps I could enhance my field project by becoming more familiar with the Malden or Mystic River watersheads through including Malden, Everett and Medford in my region of analysis. Either a “Northeastern MA” or “Metro-West MA” region could encompass these communities.
 “U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now,” U.S. Census Bureau (Press Release), accessed January 27, 2014, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-243.html
 Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative, “Highlights Report,” (reported released January 24, 2014), http://mahealthyagingcollaborative.org/data-report/explore-the-profiles/ , p. 7.
 Pushkarev and Zaren, 1977, cited in Douglas Farr, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature (Hoboken, NJ, 2008), p.111.